End to GM ban imminent?

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Gm maize, Maize, Genetically modified organism

European scientists will meet today to decide the fate of a
genetically modified corn developed by US biotech giant Monsanto. A
positive outcome from the committee would end Europe's five year
ban on GM crops, attacked by a host of countries most notably the
US as an illegal barrier to trade.

Meeting under the aegis of the Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstroem, the committee on the dissemination of GMOs in the environment will examine Monsanto's request to import into the European bloc its NK 603 variety of maize, which is resistant to the fertiliser Roundup.

While the European consumer continues to voice opposition to GM foods and crops, the Commission is under pressure to lift the illegal, de facto moratorium. The US, along with a handful of countries, last year took the EU to a World Trade Organisation dispute panel, claiming the ban was against trade rules.

Since 1998 the EU has introduced new regulations to improve the approvals process, tighten GM food labelling and traceability, and has established the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). In December 2003 the EFSA issued a positive opinion after its scientists peformed a risk assessment for the GM maize in December 2003.

The Commission believes that creating a structure of tough new GM rules has effectively cleared the way to moving forward on the issue.

?Clear labelling rules allow farmers to choose what to plant and consumers to choose what to buy. It is only logical that this safe system continues to be applied in practice and that the EU moves ahead with pending authorisations,"​ said Commission President Romano Prodi last month.

But all are not in agreement. Environmental campaigners in particular have voiced their concerns. Friends of the Earth this week criticised the Commission for pushing ahead with the autorisation of NK 603 before the new GM labelling rules come into force in April. "It is irresponsible and premature to give this maize the go-ahead before the new GM labelling laws come into force and the serious safety concerns are fully investigated. The FSA [Food Standards Agency] must now look at the gaps in the safety studies, listen to consumers and reject this GM maize,"​ said GM campaigner Clare Oxborrow.

Observers maintain that the defining moment for GM foods acceptance in Europe is not today, but at some future date when Europe takes the decision on the planting of GM crops. The committee decision this afteroon relates to the import of the food crop, not production.

Monsanto's NK603 line of maize was developed to allow the use of glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, also produced by Monsanto, as a weed control option.

The NK 603 maize was cleared for crop production in the US in 2000 and in Japan and Canada in 2001. All these countries allow its use in human food and animal feed. Australia joined the club in 2002 when it cleared the way for NK 603 use in food, although it is still banned in animal feed and crop production.

Non-GM maize, or corn, is grown commercially in over 100 countries, with a combined global harvest of 590 million metric tonnes. The major producers of maize in 2000 were the US, China, Brazil, Mexico, France, and Argentina. Maize is grown primarily for its kernel, which is largely refined into products used in a wide range of food, medical, and industrial goods.

Only a small amount of whole maize kernel is consumed by humans. Maize oil is extracted from the germ of the maize kernel and maize is also a raw material in the manufacture of starch. A complex refining process converts the majority of this starch into sweeteners, syrups and fermentation products, including ethanol.

Refined maize products, sweeteners, starch, and oil are abundant in processed foods such as breakfast cereals, dairy goods, and chewing gum.

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